COMMENTARY – Black composers have been emerging over the past year at a dramatically accelerated pace that’s particularly rare amid the normally glacial progression of the classical music world. Young figures such as Valerie Coleman – whose highly appealing Seven O’Clock Shout for the Philadelphia Orchestra was an instant hit – shouldn’t be such a surprise, but what about figures from the past who aren’t around to give a living face to their respective musical outputs? And why are we only hearing about them now?
Despite performance organizations on hiatus or on limited schedules, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), Florence Price (1887-1953), and Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977) have parachuted into digital concert life with the prominence that long seemed hopelessly out of reach. Price’s symphonies and concertos are performed with ongoing commitment by many major U.S. orchestras, Bologne’s full-length opera L’Amant anonyme was staged in a virtual LA Opera production last year, and Du Bois’ opera Tom-Tom was heard in promising excerpts from the Caramoor Festival, with prospects for a wider investigation in the near future.
All in different ways, these presenters have been rewriting the past and forcing a rethinking of the present. Maybe you showed up at New York’s Bryant Park for a summertime pop-up concert by the American Symphony Orchestra to catch long-unheard Florence Price and recently discovered Trevor Weston (b. 1967), also on the program, who may be one of most promising talents out there and is now professor of music at Drew University. Or you streamed a Chamber Music Society of Detroit concert and encountered the electricity of pianist Michelle Cann, now on the Curtis Institute faculty, playing Price’s Piano Sonata. [Hear an excerpt from an Interlochen performance below.]
The main challenge in parsing these changes is to look beyond surface racism. It’s easy to apologize for that and vow not to let it happen in the future – and sell everybody short, from the composers to the classical music industry. Any given institution holds many priorities in balance, not always successfully (to quote John Guare in the play Six Degrees of Separation, “It’s hand-to-mouth but on a higher plateau”), or at least as well as in the late 1970s, when now-deceased black conductors like Calvin Simmons, Dean Dixon, and Henry Lewis were much in evidence. Deeper probes are required to determine how these composers fell through the cracks of history.
Racism can lurk behind many other issues: Time and again, one notices Black composers encountering the same barriers as other composers, only more so, often much more so. That’s why the composers’ case histories are, at this time, as important as their music to determine what happened (as much as that is possible) and to identify contributing factors to this creative marginalization.
In general, social breakthroughs often seem unthinkable, until suddenly the right person arrives at the right time — and it’s rarely a linear progression. Before Barack Obama, I never thought I would see a Black U.S. president in my lifetime. And then one day, there he was. Black playwrights seemed destined to come and go from the theater until August Wilson arrived and stayed. I never imagined a Black singer portraying King Philip of Spain in Verdi’s Don Carlo until Eric Owens did so. He once told me that he just kept coming back until he could no longer be denied. In other words, he was the right person but maintained his presence until the right time arrived (an Opera Philadelphia production of the opera and an opening in his schedule).
Most composers begin on the wrong side of history. The world wasn’t asking for Bartók and Schoenberg – or even less challenging composers such as Debussy and Dvořák – until they re-defined history in their favor and became a law unto themselves. That’s a tall order for anybody, regardless of race. And with race?
Joseph Bologne was one of the most glamorous figures in 18th-century France, born in Guadeloupe to an African mother and white aristocrat father and educated in Europe. Besides being a composer and violinist of note, he was one of the great swordsmen of his time. His life reads like a picaresque novel, encompassing not only music, but also romance, insurrections, and the French Revolution. Sometimes (and condescendingly) called “the Black Mozart,” he has been known about for some time but with “branding” problems. His last name has numerous spellings, and in fencing circles he is known only by his title, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Obscurity is all but guaranteed for many of Bologne’s contemporaries in that period between Telemann and mature Mozart. The music they wrote often went unpublished and wasn’t always meant to have an afterlife. Bologne did indeed publish concertos and string quartets and left more of a mark than one might think. His violin technique is said to have influenced Mozart (the two crossed paths briefly in Paris). The currently celebrated French early-music ensemble Le Cercle de L’Harmonie takes its name from an 18th-century ensemble founded by Bologne. Recordings of Bologne’s music have been issued for decades – including Paul Freeman’s multi-disc African heritage series on Sony Classical, made in the 1970s – but they’ve never had the visibility of his marginal rococo contemporaries such as Boccherini and Stamitz.
The one of his six operas that survives reasonably complete, L’Amant anonyme (1780), is perfectly engaging, though the piece’s tissue-thin romantic-comedy plot shows what a difference a librettist like Lorenzo da Ponte could have made. His thoroughly charming String Quartet No. 5, Op. 1, played on a streamed concert at New York’s 92nd Street Y on March 14, suggests that while Bologne was not a full-time composer (his military career got in the way), he was a seriously accomplished one.
Shirley Graham Du Bois – who had a picaresque life of her own – also had a major success, but an isolated one with her cast-of-hundreds production of the 1932 opera Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, which was discovered among Du Bois’ papers in 2018 at Harvard by Lucy Caplan, then a Yale University doctoral candidate in American and African American studies. Six excerpts were heard in a July live stream from Caramoor revealing that, underneath her love of West African folk music, the piece had a foundation based on Wagner-style arioso, giving her nearly unlimited emotional leeway and accommodating greater dimension to her archetypal characters – with names such as Leader, Girl, and Voodoo Man – in an ambitious panorama starting in 17th-century Africa and ending in 1920s Harlem.
Composition of Tom-Tom began during Du Bois’ period of study at the Sorbonne in Paris, when her missionary brother returned from Liberia with music she absorbed along with the spirituals she grew up with, according to the 2000 biography by Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois.
An early version of Tom-Tom was premiered in 1924. Then six years later, as she was about to enter the Oberlin Conservatory, an opportunity from Cleveland’s Stadium Opera had her revising and expanding the piece at warp speed. The pageant-like opera was a hit, with two performances reportedly drawing stadium-size audiences of 25,000. Descriptions suggest a spectacle beyond opera with dancers, singers, musicians, and even elephants, collectively numbering around 500.
That very magnitude worked against further traction as the Great Depression was bottoming out in 1932. Du Bois continued composing for WPA-sponsored theater, but she was also a novelist and essayist. As the wife of famed civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois, she championed the back-to-Africa movement, among other proletariat causes. Clearly, if one medium didn’t get her ideas out to the public, she would try another. Widely traveled to say the least, she lived in Ghana and Egypt but died in Beijing in 1977 (at the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution), though she was a citizen of Tanzania.
If Du Bois and Bologne seem too unthinkable to be true, Price – perhaps the most talented of all – seems unthinkably demure, even all too normal. Born in Arkansas, Price was such a gifted youngster that she landed at the New England Conservatory studying with G.W. Chadwick, the leading Dvořák-influenced compositional voice of his generation. So it’s not surprising that Price’s Symphony No. 1, which had a successful premiere in Chicago, sounds like a sequel to the New World Symphony. Three symphonies and several concertos later, that was still her manner, even though the world had moved on. The grittier Americana style exemplified by Aaron Copland meant that even when Price was accessing folk materials from her own past, her music would seem too genteel in comparison.
She settled in Chicago for most of her adult life. Maybe that was part of the problem. If you haven’t yet heard Valerie Coleman, her music will find you in our modern age of communication, sooner rather later, no matter where she lives. Mid-20th-century Chicago – before the ascendancy of Northwestern University and the city’s burgeoning theater scene – was where molds were more likely to be sealed and secured than broken. It’s not surprising that Price’s 1933 Chicago Symphony triumph with her Symphony No. 1 seemed not to have lasting momentum.
Thus, Price did what perhaps every other composer in the world was doing at that time – writing to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Serge Koussevitzky, music director from 1924–1949 and the commissioning force behind many works, including Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in 1943. Her letters all went unanswered. Consider the possible scenarios. Maybe Koussevitzky never saw them. Had Price been based on the East Coast and her name more in the air, so to speak, she might have caught the eye of a Koussevitzky secretary opening his mail and telling the conductor, “You might want to take a look at this.” Suppose he did actually read Price’s letters. Might he have consulted his contacts at the New England Conservatory, and, with his head full of Bartók and Stravinsky, decided that Price was too Old Guard and decided not to write back rather than to give an awkward explanation?
Price needed to be a law unto herself, which was more likely to happen in New York City at that time. There, she was more likely to encounter Leopold Stokowski, who championed Black composers such as William Dawson and William Grant Still before leaving the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941. Or Black conductor Dean Dixon, who was forming ad-hoc ensembles around New York when not guest conducting established ones – and going off to have a brilliant career in Europe. Did he and Price even know about each other? Even if the Harlem Renaissance was over by the early 1930s, there had to be a lingering template for Blacks in the fine arts on the East Coast. As it was, Price’s works were performed by the WPA Symphony Orchestra of Detroit, the Chicago Women’s Symphony, and the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, which may have been perfectly good but were not places to gain the visibility that a symphonist needed.
The discovery of many major Price works in her country home and their increased availability via G. Schirmer now reveal two troublesome problems: Like many composers, she drew on the dance rhythms of her own time. But those rhythms are now something that we associate with the height of racism: the minstrel show. Often, the right kind of tempo can negate this association, but it’s something that needs to be handled with care. At the other end of the musical spectrum, she veers very close to her classical predecessors. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto hovers closely over her own Violin Concerto No. 1. In other works, Price occasionally uses outright quotation. There are a lot of possible explanations, such as learning from the masters by imitating them. But how the world deals with this remains to be seen.
Ultimately, though, two very different issues will have a decisive impact on whether the renewed visibility of Black composers is maintained – or fades into history, like so many of the 1970s breakthroughs. One of them is availability of performance materials. Du Bois’ opera looks to require much editing before it’s ready to be staged. Even with Price’s work handled by G. Schirmer, there is a certain amount of flux there. Her Piano Concerto No. 1 has been heard in an orchestration by Trevor Weston – though just recently, Price’s own orchestration was found and given its modern premiere by Michelle Cann and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Discoveries, even in Price’s native Arkansas, are still being made. Some 14 major works by Bologne (in an output that is hardly vast) survive in manuscript but remain unpublished. So do approximately 100 songs. This could account for 25 percent of his output.
More troublesome is the margin for failure. Even the greatest composers have major works killed by bad performances. The Florence Price revival began three or four years ago, which means that a number of performances were given by orchestras that were not full-time, and, according to some recordings on YouTube, were struggling to project the full magnitude of the music. One could argue that you can’t fully evaluate her scores until they’re heard in first-class performances. The fear is that people will give up on her music before properly comprehending it. And that’s not just a performance problem. In any of her treatments of familiar spirituals, it’s easy to hear them only superficially: You get the general sense of the music and may not listen further to the subtleties that she brought to them and in which she reveals her genius. What all of these composers need are “calling card” pieces. George Walker, for example, had a rather extreme modernist side that could leave you baffled, but his Lyric for Strings easily draws you back.
Though ceaselessly congenial, Bologne requires high-personality soloists – Jean-Jacques Kantorow being one such violinist who has recorded his music. This music was written by and for a star presence. It’s there that my ears say, “Now I get it.” But what he needs is something like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to help his franchise to transcend less successful performances. Think about it: How often would Vivaldi appear on mainstream symphonic programs were it not for The Four Seasons? Probably less often than Bologne does now. Buried in Bologne’s output, there could well be “a greatest hit” that hasn’t yet been discovered because the world hasn’t paid enough attention to him. And the young African-American violinist Randall Goosby, who has industry visibility that includes a recording contract, is exactly the sort of person who could find it. Consider how that might change history: a ubiquitous evergreen work by a Black composer? How unthinkable is that? These days, it’s at least as thinkable as a two-term Black American president.